I was recently posed the question: If you could improve one line in the greater Boston area, which would you prioritize? This post is an attempt to answer that question using existing plans as well as my own imagination. MassDOT and the MBTA have drafted many plans for what they would like to see in Boston’s public transit, yet many remain plans and dreams until funding comes around. While time might be better spent brainstorming creative methods to raise money for infrastructure beyond highway repairs, it is good practice to go through a planning process if significant funds were every made available, be it through an increased gas tax, toll fees, or increased fares (all of which are half-solutions to the greater problem at hand). In the words of President Eisenhower, “plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
There are many approaches to this question. Do I think realistically and suggest an answer that could actually happen? Or do I take a risk and suggest something that isn’t even included in the MBTA’s long-term capital plan? My question is, why not both? There is an easy fix to the Silver Line, which I would suggest in order to provide more opportunities along the Washington Street corridor to spur business and create access to jobs. I argue that improvements on this line will spur innovative solutions to the entire transit network in the Boston region.
The story of the Silver Line is one of disappointment and compromise. As I have mentioned in earlier posts, it is the
replacement for the elevated orange line that once ran above ground from Chinatown through Dudley Square to Forest Hills until 1987. The Orange Line moved to the Southwest Corridor after Jamaica Plain activists prevented the construction of an expressway there. It resulted in a vacuum of transportation for those in the South End, Roxbury, and Jamaica Plain who had relied on the elevated.
Despite being promised an “equal or better” replacement, residents were given what we have today: the Silver Line, which is a botched implementation of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), and must confuse the heck out of tourists. Originally the plan was to provide transportation to the developing Waterfront area with a cheap alternative to rail. The SL 4 and SL 5 were afterthoughts and a way to silence the criticism of local residents and elected officials. Although the Waterfront has dedicated tunnels and lanes (see Courthouse Station, which is the epitome of lavishness but completely underutilized – so much so that no one even pays to advertise there), the BRT along Washington Street is essentially a glorified articulated bus. It is plagued by delays because of traffic, on-board payment, and overcrowding.
My improvement would be upon SL 4 and SL 5. Signal priority was a simple fix that we have already seen on normal bus routes across the region and have seen on the Silver Line. Further improvements are possible that would be simple and could increase the efficiency and ridership to this once flourishing corridor. There are three simple suggestions that would improve this line: median stations to speed boarding processes, dedicated bus lines to ensure speed, and more frequent service to accommodate ridership increases.
These changes require alteration of Washington Street. It is already a wide street with dedicated bus lanes along some stretches. Constructing a concrete median would eliminate a lane of traffic or make traffic lanes smaller. However, it would be consistent with MassDOT’s goals for more complete streets, which embrace all modes of transportation. Roads are intended for use by more than just cars, and it is important for infrastructure improvements to reflect this, especially as fewer people are using cars. Median stations would allow fare gates so passengers could board through all doors rather than lining up at the front to pay their fare. This would result in quicker boarding. It would create “stations” rather than just shelters and bus stops, which might then include heaters, fare machines to reload CharlieCards, and sign displaying arrival information.
A potential problem would be the exit from median stations. Obviously pedestrian safety would be a main concern. Therefore, crosswalks would be installed and colored to differentiate themselves from the street. Lights would be synced with the arrival of Silver Line buses to reduce overcrowding on station platforms and so riders can cross the road with ease. This is already seen on the Green Line B-Branch at Griggs Street/Long Avenue, but rather than pressing a button pedestrians would be open to cross immediately upon disembarking. More station infrastructure could be built along the sidewalks to increase mobility within the system, such as bike racks, Hubway stations, and more seating.
Dedicated Bus Lanes
The next suggestions would be dedicated bus lanes. Although there are already bus lanes along stretches of SL 4 and SL 5, there is room for improvement. For example, bus lanes would be moved to the center to accommodate new median stations. They would include overhead electric power to reduce tailpipe emissions, much like the underground portions of the Waterfront Silver Line and 71, 72, 73 and 77A trolleybuses in Cambridge, Belmont, and Watertown. This right-of-way removes the buses from congestion and ensures on-time arrivals according to schedule.
The last improvement would be more frequent service. Currently, peak service on SL 4 and SL 5 is every 10 and 7 minutes respectively and up to 20 minutes at non-peak hours. Meanwhile, rapid transit runs every 5-7 minutes during rush hour and up to 10 minutes at non-peak hours. Currently many commuters walk to the Orange Line to travel downtown. With a better Silver Line, they may opt for a shorter walk to the Silver Line, creating more rider demand. Improved reliability and efficiency would increase ridership along the Washington Street corridor, which means already crowded buses would become even more crowded. Larger buses do not seem feasible given large articulated buses already run on the Silver Line. Therefore, more frequent service would be necessary.
But the biggest question remains unanswered: of all the problems Boston faces in terms of transportation, why should we focus on fixing the one “line” that isn’t a train? The answer comes in terms of cost: Bus rapid transit is a cheaper alternative than rail. There are minimal infrastructure costs compared to laying down rail. Stations are much more minimal. Plus, they are much more flexible to shift with city travel patterns than rail. Whereas rail is a fixed route, BRT can change when the people within cities change habits. As development continues in Dudley Square and other portions of Boston outside downtown, the “travel from outside the city to the central business district” model of commuting will be outdated. It is important for transportation to reflect the needs of the people who use it, and BRT will allow for this.
Successful implementation along the Washington Street corridor will serve as a model for the rest of the city. The Silver Line Gateway to Chelsea and East Boston will become more a reality, as will improvements in neighborhoods currently without rapid transit. Effective transportation options will become available to provide unparalleled mobility and opportunity to all Boston residents. In an age where funding for transportation is scarce, it is important to make the most of every dollar. BRT is a cost-effective solution for moving mass amounts of people with minimal infrastructure costs and costs to the environment.
The SL 4 and SL 5 are the two lines I would improve if I could, and believe the process of improving BRT in the Boston region now will pay dividends later.